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Gamer's World | Seeking Out New Gaming Trends at the Game Developers Conference 2024

The San Francisco gaming event offered fun indie game discoveries and insight into the creative process behind megahits, shining hope as the industry recovers.



Daniel at the Game Developers Conference 2024 in March. (©Daniel Robson)

I just got back to Tokyo from a trip to San Francisco to attend the Game Developers Conference. Held annually most years since 1988, GDC is the world's largest gathering of game devs. It is a place where gaming innovators behind critically acclaimed megahits share knowledge with the wider community through talks and panels. There, up-and-coming newbie game designers and university undergrads rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in the game. 

This year's GDC drew some 30,000 attendees, with over 730 sessions, panels, and workshops.

Nintendo's Creative Process

Headline sessions included a panel where Super Mario Bros. Wonder producer Takashi Tezuka and director Shiro Mouri talked in detail about the process of creating the first all-new 2D Mario platform game in over a decade. "Making a 2D game allows you to make changes right through to the end of development, more easily than with a 3D game," explained Tezuka, who has worked on Mario games since 1985. 

Super Mario Bros. Wonder producer Takashi Tezuka speaks at a session during GDC 2024. (©Daniel Robson)

The new game's Wonder Effect allowed them to add lots of weird and wonderful ideas to transform standard stages into something unique. During the panel, Mouri explained how he sought input from the entire development team, regardless of job title, to pool some 2,000 ideas that they could whittle down and refine for the final game. 

A slide shows how Nintendo staff brainstormed ideas for 2023's Super Mario Bros. Wonder. (©Daniel Robson)

"We set up Wonder Effect testing sessions with small teams making one idea each, then playtesting each other's demos and giving feedback," said Mouri. "More than half the ideas we tested were discarded, but this process of prototyping led to an increase in motivation and experience for the team members."

The session provided a rare peek into the development process behind one of gaming's most beloved mascots. It offered an insight into how Nintendo is encouraging younger, less experienced staff members to level up.

Real-World Physics and Player Freedom

Another talk by Nintendo developers shone a light on the making of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Again, an emphasis was placed on the importance of iteration, as the team struggled to develop a physics-based engine that would allow players to freely craft items within the game and explore in any way they like. So, players can build a vehicle or solve a puzzle by combining objects they find around them, in any way they can imagine, thanks to an incredibly robust physics engine made especially for this game.

Members of the Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom development team hold a panel at GDC 2024. (©Daniel Robson)

However, the pursuit of player freedom produced chaos for the Zelda development team, who had to solve problems using a blend of real-world physics and smoke and mirrors to allow them to cheat where necessary. For example, planks of wood in the game had to be thicker than they would be in real life so that the player could see them properly. But by making them thicker, their weight would increase too much, so these parameters had to be manually tweaked. For the assembled audience of game developers in the large hall, hearing firsthand about such ingenuity was doubtless incredibly inspiring.

Other sessions were focused on recent hits such as Baldur's Gate 3 and lost would-be classics such as Tetris Reversed. But GDC is about more than just these talks.

Once Human

I was in San Francisco to chat with the developers of Once Human. It is an upcoming open-world survival game set in a weird and wonderful mutated world where humans live among monsters — some evil and some benevolent — to survive. The game, developed in China by Starry Studio and published by NetEase, is currently the 11th most-wishlisted game on Steam, thanks to a series of invitation-only closed beta tests (CBTs) that have left a deep impression on those who got to play it. 

Once Human is one of the most hotly anticipated games of 2024.

Once Human offers an incredible amount of freedom. In a luscious environment filled with danger and wonder, players can do whatever they like. They can follow the game's story or ignore it, play alone or with friends, battle bosses or build bases, hunt for resources, or just go fishing.

Once Human's next CBT is set for April 3, with a tentative release window of Q3 2024. I got to see some of its new features in action with a private demo by the game's developers. What I saw looks fantastic, from its Lovecraftian creature design to its community features to its jaw-dropping visuals. 

China on the Global Gaming Stage

But beyond that, I was struck once again by how games from China have evolved to the point where they are among the most anticipated in the world. The technical innovation on display in this game is undeniable, as is the creative vision. I was left with the strong impression that Once Human will very likely be a smash hit when it is finally released later in 2024. It stands a serious chance at competing long-term in the crowded survival game market.

Mobile game Eggy Party has surpassed 500 million players.

I also interviewed the lead producer of another game from NetEase, Eggy Party. This is a very different kind of experience — an online party game where egg-shaped characters compete in cartoonish arenas to win a series of challenges. The game can be played alone or with friends, with a mix of solo and team-based mini-games, and the priority is quick and chaotic fun. For more invested players, there is even a course creator where anyone can make their own stage and challenge others to beat it. 

Eggy Party has already surpassed 500 million players, again showing the recent dominance of games from China. This time the recipe is an all-ages concept with strong social features and deep enough gameplay elements to keep players coming back. Additionally, AI-assisted tools make it super easy to create your own course, a creative innovation that lowers the barrier to entry and allows anyone to play.

Country Pavilions

GDC also has an expo hall. While there are some playable game demos on the show floor, the show is very much geared towards game developers and businesspeople. Among the 325 exhibitors, vendors of development tools such as Fortnite and Unreal Engine maker Epic, community tools such as chat platform Discord, and all manner of niche technical products vied for the attention of conference visitors.

Fortnite developer Epic Games gave demonstrations of its latest game-development engine, Unreal Engine 5, at its booth in the GDC expo hall. (©Daniel Robson)

Country pavilions grouped together games from Italy, Germany, and Brazil. There, I was reunited with friends from the India Game Developer Conference 2023 at the India pavilion. It included a demo of Unsung Empires: The Cholas, in which players control 11th-century Tamil Chola emperor Rajendra Chola through a cinematic adventure.

The GDC venue map, rendered in retro pixel art style.

Japan had a pavilion too, but ... it wasn't great. Operated by the government-funded Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), it showed very few games, and visitors seemed more interested in the free sake giveaways. 

Tokyo Game Show

Thankfully, Tokyo Game Show's separate booth was a popular draw. As more and more global game companies look to the post-pandemic Japan market, TGS' organizers from Nikkei BP told me they have received a ton of applications for September 2024's upcoming event. The organizers were offering a free TGS T-shirt to visitors who traded business cards at their GDC booth, which proved so popular that their entire allocation ran out on the first day.

While the sessions and expo take place by day, at night GDC is all about the mixer parties, private dinners, and hotel bar drinks — a chance to meet up in person with old friends and forge new business alliances. Deals are thrashed out over steak dinners, new friendships are toasted over gin and tonics, and gameplay demos are placed in party settings where they compete with the DJ for the attention of conference delegates.

Cozy Indie Game Sopa

One game I discovered at a daytime mixer event held by Xbox was Sopa, by independent developer StudioBando. This charming game casts you as Miho, a young boy in a Latino household who must help his grandmother make soup for dinner. Nana sends Miho to fetch ingredients from the pantry. It is a place of untold terror, where a strange frog-like creature steals the last sack of potatoes — sending Miho on an adventure into a fantasy world beyond the pantry. With its Pixar-like visuals, colorful characters, offbeat humor, and rich setting, the demo made me laugh while pulling at my heartstrings.

Upcoming indie game Sopa was a highlight of the show.

At another party held by Gamera Games and Game Connection in a ramshackle house with art all over the walls, I discovered a British game called Morgan: Metal Detective. In the game, a young girl visits the remote Cornish island where her grandfather recently passed away. When Morgan picks up her late grandfather's cherished metal detector, she begins her investigation of the island. She reunites its residents with their missing belongings and strengthens her family bonds in the process. I particularly enjoyed the game's cozy setting and gentle gameplay.

Morgan: Metal Detective is a cozy game set on a Cornish island.

The Future of Gaming

Over the past year or so, the game industry in the West has been beset by endless waves of layoffs. This of course influenced the mood at this year's GDC. Many developers I met were between jobs, while others were grateful to have hung on to their positions. Moreover, I noticed a lot of developers posting on Twitter that they were unable to attend GDC at all due to being unemployed and unable to afford the (somewhat expensive) tickets. Some others simply hung out for networking in the nearby Yerba Buena Gardens without buying a conference pass. It wasn't a pity party by any means, but the undercurrent was noticeable.

Still, as the game industry reconfigures itself and recovers, any opportunity to gather in person is invaluable. For me as a game journalist, it was an opportunity to find cool new games, strengthen relationships, and speak on and off the record with people from across the game industry. Doubtless, 2024 will be tough for many in the game business, but I left GDC filled with hope for the year ahead.



Author: Daniel Robson

Daniel Robson is the chief editor of videogame news site IGN Japan. Read his series Gamer's World on JAPAN Forward, and find him on X (formerly Twitter).